NEW ORLEANS — The death of New England Patriots defensive end Marquise Hill, who fell off a personal watercraft Sunday in Lake Pontchartrain, was ruled an accidental drowning Tuesday.
An autopsy found no signs of drug or alcohol in Hill’s body, although more tests are planned and will take two weeks to complete, said Orleans Parish coroner Dr. Frank Minyard.
Minyard said Hill might have suffered a mild concussion when he fell off the watercraft.
“He might of hit the right side of his face above the eye when he fell off the craft,” Minyard said. “He had a pretty nasty bruise there.”
There was a slight amount of blood in the brain at that point, which could indicate a concussion, Minyard said.
“That could have caused him some confusion,” Minyard said. “Although we were told he talked to the woman who was with him after the accident, he could have become disoriented.”
The former LSU star and a female friend had ventured onto the lake near the south shore. Investigators said neither was wearing a life vest. Authorities said they ended up in an area of swirling currents near where a shipping canal runs into the lake.
“The water goes through there very fast and it’s very deep — 70, 80, 90 feet deep,” said Minyard, who fishes in the area.
“Marquise was a great person. He was a great leader,” Former LSU coach and current Alabama coach Nick Saban said Tuesday, after attending SEC coaches meetings in Destin, Fla. “Certainly, he was a great player for us. I thought he played his best game ever in the national championship game against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. His family, his mother, his grandmother are great people.”
Hill, from New Orleans, was a starting defensive end for the Tigers during their 2003 national championship season.
“There’s no question that you sit around a lot and think about why do things like this have to happen,” Saban said. “Such a tragedy happening to young people and their families. He had such a bright future, so it gets cut short. Our sympathy is certainly with his family and loved ones. I know a lot of the players who played with him and were part of a team that was really special in terms of what they were able to accomplish. And guys that had the opportunity to coach him all feel the same way.”
Hill spent much of his free time and his NFL paycheck helping loved ones rebuild in the hurricane-damaged city where he grew up.
Aiding others came naturally to him, and distraught relatives on Monday said Hill died a hero after the former LSU star helped save the life of a former high school classmate who could not swim.
While the woman survived by grabbing a piling and holding onto it until she was rescued, the 24-year-old Hill, who friends described as a good swimmer, drifted away and disappeared until searchers pulled his body from the water on Monday afternoon, about 17 hours after the accident.
“He was a hero until the end,” his cousin, Elaine Hill Blackshire of Alabama, told the Boston Herald for Tuesday’s editions. “He made sure he got her to safety. I’m just so sad that he lost his life, but he wouldn’t have had it any other way. If he had saved himself, and knowing she couldn’t swim, he couldn’t have lived with himself.
“He thought of others first. He was just that kind of person.”
Loved ones including Hill’s fiancee, Inell Benn, and friends, including Patriots teammate Randall Gay, had waited anxiously along the shoreline during the search and consoled one another when authorities told them the 6-foot-6, 300-pound Hill was found dead.
“Right now’s a terrible time,” Benn said. “I don’t know what to feel right now.”
Gay, who also played with Hill at LSU, had planned to spend the holiday weekend in Baton Rouge, but drove to New Orleans on Monday to monitor the search. Rough sea conditions and the current caused Hill’s watercraft to overturn.
“Knowing that I have to go back to work and go look at his locker this week, it’s tough,” Gay said.
Hill’s body was discovered by searchers about a quarter of a mile from where he fell into the water, Capt. Brian Clark of the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Department said. The name of Hill’s companion has not been released.
Hill also leaves a 2-year-old son.
“He was just such a fine young man. I’m just so deeply, deeply, sorry,” his stepgrandmother, Virginia Hill of Alabama, told the Herald. Before his body was found, his mother, Sherry Hill, told the newspaper she was hoping for a miracle.
“I lost a brother, man,” said Patriots defensive lineman Jarvis Green, a fellow Louisiana native and former LSU player. “He was a funny guy. … He’d just sit there and talk to you, say some funny things off his head that’d make you laugh. He was good to be around.”
The Coast Guard was called Sunday night, Petty Officer Tom Atkeson said. The search began immediately, using boats and helicopters. By the time the body was found, the Coast Guard, Wildlife and Fisheries, the New Orleans Police Department and Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Department were involved, Clark said.
“We have suffered a stunning and tragic loss,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said in a written statement Monday evening. “Marquise will be remembered as a thoughtful and caring young man who established himself as one of the year-round daily fixtures of our team. I send my deepest condolences to the Hill family.”
Hill’s agent, Albert Elias, said he spoke with Hill’s friend and said she either couldn’t swim or was having difficulty doing so.
“Marquise knew this, and being a strong swimmer, he was instructing her as he drifted away in a different direction to stay calm and don’t fight the water. He found a buoy or piling behind her and told her to let the current take her to that. She listened to him and it pretty much saved her life,” Elias said.
The woman was sent to Tulane Medical Center, where she told authorities that Hill had tried to keep her calm as the two were drifting away from each other.
“It’s so important to have a life jacket and a signaling device,” Atkeson said. “One keeps you afloat and the other helps us find you.”
Elias said the player spent much of his time since Hurricane Katrina helping rebuild the homes of family members including his mother and the mother of his son.
“From what I hear, he’s done a lot to help with things after Katrina and I know he had a great passion for the city of New Orleans,” said former LSU quarterback Matt Mauck, who was Hill’s teammate at LSU. “Off the field he was a really kind person, kind of like a gentle giant. And not only for LSU, but for New England and everyone who got a chance to meet him throughout his life, everyone has to be extremely saddened and disappointed to hear the news.”
After going to the NFL, Hill continued to do much of his offseason training at LSU’s Baton Rouge campus, about 80 miles up the Mississippi River from New Orleans, and was known and admired by current Tigers players, university athletics spokesman Michael Bonnette said.
“His presence meant a lot for some of the younger guys. He gave them someone to look up to and he was always there for them,” Bonnette said. “Here’s a 6-foot-6, 300-pound guy, as intimidating as can be, and yet every time you approached him he always welcomed you with a big old smile.
“In between the lines, he had his game-face on, but outside the lines, in the community or in the weight room, he was always smiling and having a good time.”
Visitation will be held from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday at Jacob Schoen and Son Funeral Home in New Orleans with funeral services scheduled Saturday at noon at Greater St. Stephens Full Gospel Baptist Church.
Interment will follow at Restlawn Park and Mausoleum.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.